I’m a parent, a teacher, and business person. I’m not blaming anyone for the problems of education, but with budget cuts, state-mandated testing, technology, and globalization, education will soon change dramatically. If you care about that, let’s discuss how we can help re-design it.
First, what is education?
If we think of education as if it’s a house we’re going to build, we can say what it usually has, and build that: a kitchen, dining room, bathrooms (or toilets or water closets, depending where you’re from), bedrooms, a family room, and sometimes other spaces.
Let’s determine what is essential, and what we can omit or transform. It’s the same process when there are budget cuts or any change occurs. Somebody makes those decisions—usually government officials, who may or may not be experts in education and may or may not be of your opinion.
What if we didn’t build a dining room? An apartment without one is OK, you say, but the “American dream” house has a dining room; that’s the way things are done. Fine, but people don’t really use them, so at our house, we turned it into a music room.
To reform or transform education, I suggest we think of its new form as if it’s a house that will be designed, then built. Let’s discuss design ideas. Later, when you voice your opinion to decision-makers, you’ll be prepared with reasons for your opinions.
What is the purpose of education?
Who is it for? Is education for kids? All kids? Must it take place in a school?
Just as homes are supposed to be for the occupants, not the builder, education ought to be for students. So why is the garage sometimes the most prominent feature of a house? It’s easier or cheaper to build that way? Does the design imply that substantial value is placed on cars? Should values be distributed differently?
So, what is education for? If we don’t pay attention to that, our garage will not only diminish the aesthetic value of the house, it gets in the way of other things we need: more windows, for example. And are people with good aesthetic skills noticing other design opportunities that could help others?
I’m trying to be careful when to use the word education and when to use the word school or schooling. Schooling takes place in a school, but must an education take place there? Can an education take place at home, online, or after high school and college are completed? What does it mean if someone is educated?
“Easier to design or build that way” was the reason software was difficult to use before usability—or more specifically, user-centered design—came along. And I’m trying to use words like people-centered. User-centered design (in this case, student-centered or learner-centered design) will help us focus.
For more information about usability:
A short list of goals for education
Though there are other goals, let’s start with a short list that most people can agree on: education is to prepare people for college (for most sorts of work, college is necessary in today’s job market, though the trades may become more important), work, and life. But how do we know whether schools are achieving these goals?
Following up on the effectiveness of particular managers (teachers and administrators), business units (schools), methods, etc. is rather common in business, but is rare in education. But Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap, asked university students and professors whether high school had prepared students for college. Students had found extra-curricular activities the most “engaging” part of high school; academically, the modus operandi was memorization (doesn’t sound engaging), then forgetting. Both students and professors said that students weren’t prepared: they couldn’t write well, analyze, research, manage time… the list goes on.
In the U.S., the quality of education varies greatly, depending mainly on how wealthy a particular town is (that may not be true in other countries). However, Wagner’s work focused on the best schools. Not only that, but college is changing quickly and may be significantly different by the time elementary and middle school students get there.
I’ve been working in business for the past two decades. To prepare for my return to education, I’ve been reading a lot, taught in a public school for a month, and have been communicating with teachers in many other schools as I took several graduate courses, and attended teaching conferences and workshops. The lack of technology in some schools would never be acceptable in business! Technologies vary from school to school; common problems include the lack of equipment, software, and teacher training in technology, and no Internet access in classrooms or blocked Internet sites that would be useful for teachers and students.
With all the budget and policy constraints, it is indeed challenging to run a school or teach these days. Many schools seem to have been compelled to design the most support into state-tested subjects (well documented in Wagner’s book), and these changes have resulted in some unfortunate effects. Some teachers of the other (non-state-tested) subjects have twice as many students as I had in the 1980s, and struggle to meet their needs. In business, we must do more with less, but we have technology to boost productivity.
Parents and kids often say that those other subjects and activities (art, the school musical, sports, etc.) mean the most to kids. Personally, playing music and singing is not only a passion of mine, but learning it has helped me master new sounds when learning foreign languages, and be comfortable on stage, presenting to a large audience—skills that have been useful to me in business.
Experts also agree. Dan Pink (author of A Whole New Mind) and Sir Ken Robinson (author of The Element) document the need for students to study the arts / right-brained subjects to not only be happy and excel at something but to be able to earn a good living in the global economy.
In his book, An Army of Davids, Glenn Reynolds predicts that people will live much longer lives, and require re-education (lifelong learning). So maybe education isn’t just for kids. The Division of Employment and Training in Massachusetts offers re-training for the unemployed. In my experience, professional development webinars have become an essential part of business.
Meantime, some edublogs are discussing the relevance of what’s taught in schools:
And here’s an anecdote from my family. My son is studying density, mass, and volume in science class. Thinking I could help by providing him a hands-on way to understand science, I got out my U.S. and European measuring cups yesterday, and asked him to compare them and figure out why they were different. (The U.S. model measures everything by volume: cups. The European model measures everything in grams, so there is a different scale for Flour, Sugar, Rice, etc.) But he got frustrated and said “Just tell me the answer!,” so I dropped it. Today, after thinking I had needed to learn something about the motivation required for actual learning, I gave him three choices:
- I tell him the answer.
- Next time we serve crêpes for dinner (I make them a couple of times a year for special occasions), he does the measuring.
- I won’t bring it up again; he can learn it when he wants.
He chose Door #2. I thought that might work! He loves crêpes, even more than pizza. Motivation is so important!
The way many schools are reacting to state-mandated testing seems like the carrot-and-stick model. If we could figure out how to motivate all the kids, they would learn more. However, each kid is an individual, so within a traditional classroom with one teacher and 30 kids, it is difficult to achieve, especially in the digital age.
(P.S. I just made crêpes again; as soon as I brought out the measuring cups, my son understood the difference.)